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Mr. Coolidge’s Jungle War
Forty years ago, American Marines tangled with a tough Latin-American guerrilla leader whose tactics against “the capitalists” would evoke an unhappy shock of recognition in Vietnam today.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
The guerrillas had scattered in the mountains in what would become known as a classic pattern of dispersal following an engagement. At the time, however, the American authorities simply took the dispersal as a sign that they were giving up the fight. So convinced were the Americans that Sandino was beaten that they ordered a withdrawal of part of the provisional brigade to Guantánamo in Cuba and to other bases. General Logan Feland also left, after handing over command of the Nicaragua field force to Colonel Louis Mason Gulick. Meanwhile an Army general, Frank R. McCoy, arrived with orders from President Coolidge to supervise the coming election.
The countryside was fairly quiet that summer, and by the end of July there were only 1,700 Marines still stationed in Nicaragua. But the lull was deceptive. Actually Sandino was quietly building up his forces for renewed and heavier fighting. A Marine Corps historian wrote later:
He was a master of propaganda and managed to use the Ocotal affair to his advantage: it served to attract the attention of communistic and other radical elements in Central America, Mexico and even in the United States; and it made Sandino a central figure to rally around. Considerable sums of money were raised, some even in the United States, and turned over to him for the purpose of providing military equipment and maintaining an armed force. Within a few months Sandino had several thousand followers and an actual armed force of almost a thousand. All this went on, however, without the knowledge of any responsible American official.
Harold Denny, the New York Times’s capable young man on the scene, agreed that Sandino may have become a hero abroad through “extravagantly false” propaganda, but in Benny’s view “he did not represent public opinion in Nicaragua.” His countrymen sympathized with Sandino but seldom offered their voluntary support. Many foreigners in Nicaragua, not including Americans, also sympathized with him because:
He was an under dog making a terrific fight. I have heard foreigners in fear of an imminent attack on their plantations discuss him with something akin to admiration. But few people in Nicaragua were really interested in throwing the Americans out of the country, even though they might not love them. To the more intelligent persons of both parties, Sandino was a lively danger to Nicaragua’s hard won opportunity for a just peace. Toward the last even some of his supporters outside the country urged him to cease fighting because his warfare, instead of driving the marines from the country, was insuring that they would remain.
The only American to wangle a personal interview with Sandino during the year of his most intense activity as a guerrilla chieftain was Carleton Beals, a correspondent for the Nation, one of the most eloquent of the defenders of Sandino’s right to foment a rebellion against the American presence. Beals made a long and perilous journey through Honduras and across the northern border of Nicaragua, entering Sandino country through the back door. Through his well-advertised sympathies Beals was enabled to “make the proper connections in Mexico and Guatemala” and follow “the thread of Sandino’s underground with the outside world,” through El Salvador and then Honduras. While travelling that clandestine route, guided by Sandino sympathizers, Beals was shown a photograph of the town of Chinandega after it was bombed by U.S. planes, and in his report there are foreshadowings of Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from Vietnam. “An entire street laid in ruins and sprinkled with mangled bodies,” Beals wrote; “the tumbled walls of the hospital, broken bodies of patients flung about. … Was it so long ago that we called the Germans Huns for destroying civilian populations without mercy?”
Beals’s interview with Sandino demonstrated to Americans that he was no mere adventurer but a man of intensely idealistic convictions. Sandino attacked the Díaz government as an American puppet, blamed American financial interests for all the troubles visited upon his country, inveighed against Nicaragua’s sale of its canal rights to the United States, and blamed the country’s economic plight on eighteen years of American intervention. Only in relating his military successes, Beals thought, was Sandino “quite too flamboyant and boastful.”
One myth exploded by Beals was the much repeated charge that Sandino was being equipped with Russian arms. Beals examined some of the rifles carried by the Sandinistas and found that they did indeed bear Russian markings. Investigation showed, however, that they had been manufactured in the United States for export to the Kerensky regime, which gave way to the Bolsheviks before the weapons could be employed against the Germans; subsequently they were sold as army surplus to Mexico, and were among the four boatloads of arms that Mexico sent to the Liberal revolutionaries just before the Nicaraguan revolution broke out. Beals was not impressed with their quality, observing that some of them “exploded in the hands of the users.”